When I recently learned that the Grand County Council was resurrecting the hot-button Book Cliffs Highway proposal I first thought, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I can’t believe that controversial idea is even back on the table.”
Anyone who has lived here the past several years has seen this movie, but some of the players have changed over the past couple of decades. There is a different economic climate, there are different elected officials in place, and there are different options for how such a project could be built and funded.
What isn’t different is the most certain opposition from environmental conservationists and antidevelopment corners who remind us about the impacts we might regret.
The Grand County Council recently and unanimously passed a resolution seeking input from neighboring Uintah County about the feasibility of building an improved road that could link our two counties via the Book Cliffs or Sego Canyon. Studies would look at possible routes and financial figures. Uintah County, which favors a road and has already paved their county’s portion of it, is sure to partner in this information-gathering effort.
I think these ideas are worth exploring, if only for settling the proposal once and for all. I believe the Grand County Council can be open-minded when examining cost, impacts and feasibility issues. The seven members of recent and current county councils likely know that their privilege to sit at the dais is largely the result of actions by a three-member county commission that was thrown out by voters more than 20 years ago – voters who staged a coup that blew up over the commission’s unwillingness to consider citizens’ desire and concerns, and the original idea to build a highway across the Book Cliffs. That change in government occurred because voters wanted a more diverse electorate they hoped would better represent the citizens of Grand County.
With the Book Cliffs Highway back on the agenda, the current council will be put to the test. I support the baby steps that might be taken as Grand and Uintah counties gather information about whether the project is a worthwhile benefit to our county, and whether it can serve our industrial and recreational potential in a manner that doesn’t outweigh leaving the lands as remote and rough as they currently are. The project would most certainly be a boon to Uintah County, whose mineral, oil and gas harvests might be more profitable with easier access to an interstate and rail siding.
Those opposing the project have valid concerns about the sensitive landscape of the Book Cliffs and the rich Native American rock art of Sego Canyon near Thompson. But an improved road may not need to go near Sego Canyon, instead accessing Hay Canyon many miles to the east on the Cisco desert. There is currently a four-wheel-drive road from Hay Canyon up and over the Book Cliffs. The road’s steep grades and rough features may not meet federal standards or qualify for federal funding, but private development could literally pave the way. Beyond that, Grand County might be able to collect substantial revenues from energy companies that would use the road.
From a recreational standpoint, a better road could greatly shorten the travel distance between Moab and eastern Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, Flaming Gorge and even Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. There again, business advocates might smile on the opportunities, but conservationists might groan at the thought of more tourists here.
Grand and Uintah counties have a lot to talk about, and the figurative roadblocks make the project a long shot at best. Until the dialogue gets under way, though, I think I’ll take a drive.